The State of Israel

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While today Israel enjoys wide support on both sides of the American political aisle, this was not always the case. Late in 1956 the eminent political theorist Leo Strauss took the unusual step of commenting on contemporary political affairs to come to Israel’s defense. Strauss was moved to write by attacks against the nascent Jewish state in the conservative National Review. In this letter to Willmoore Kendall, a professor of political philosophy, founding editor of National Review, and an admirer of Strauss, Strauss reflects on the Jewish state based on his observations as a visiting professor at Hebrew University. Israel is a modern Western country with a spirit nurtured by the Hebrew Bible, he explains. Claims that the state is racist are unfounded. Strauss reminds his readers that political Zionism aims to reconnect the Jewish people with their heritage and restore the inner freedom and dignity that was lost in the ambiguous results of European emancipation.

The original letter is reproduced in full below. It was later edited and republished as an official Letter to the Editor in the January 5, 1957 issue of National Review.

November 19, 1956
Professor Wilmoore Kendall
Department of Political Science
Yale University
New Haven, Connecticut

Dear Professor Kendall:

For some time I have been receiving The National Review. You will not be surprised to hear that I agree with many articles appearing in the journal, especially your own. There is, however, one feature of the journal which I completely fail to comprehend. It is incomprehensible to me that the authors who touch on that subject are so unqualifiedly opposed to the State of Israel. No reasons why that stand is taken are given; mere antipathies are voiced. For I cannot call reasons such arguments as are based on gross factual error, or on complete non-comprehension of the things which matter. I am, therefore, tempted to believe that the authors in question are driven by an anti-Jewish animus; but I have learned to resist temptations. I have been teaching at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem for the whole academic year of 1954-1955, and what I am going to say is based exclusively on what I have seen with my own eyes.

The first thing which strikes one in Israel is that the country is a western country, which educates its many immigrants from the East in the ways of the West: Israel is the only country which as a country is an outpost of the West in the East. Furthermore, Israel is a country which is surrounded by mortal enemies of overwhelming numerical superiority, and in which a single book absolutely predominates in the instruction given in elementary schools and in high schools: the Hebrew bible. Whatever the failings of individuals may be, the spirit of the country as a whole can justly be described in these terms: heroic austerity supported by the nearness of biblical antiquity. A conservative, I take it, is a man who believes that “everything good is heritage.” I know of no country today in which this belief is stronger and less lethargic than in Israel.

But the country is poor, lacks oil and many other things which fetch much money; the venture on which the country rests may well appear to be quixotic; the University and the Government buildings are within easy range of Jordanian guns; the possibility of disastrous defeat or failure is obvious and always close. A conservative, I take it, is a man who despises vulgarity; but the argument which is concerned exclusively with calculations of success, and is based on blindness to the nobility of the effort, is vulgar.

I hear the argument that the country is run by labor unions. I believe that it is a gross exaggeration to say that the country is run by labor unions. But even if it were true, I would say that a conservative, I take it, is a man who knows that the same arrangement may have very different meanings in different circumstances. The men who are governing Israel at present came from Russia at the beginning of the century. They are much more properly described as pioneers than as labor unionists. They were the men who laid the foundations under hopelessly difficult conditions. They are justly looked up to by all non-doctrinaires as the natural aristocracy of the country, for the same reasons for which Americans look up to the Pilgrim fathers. They came from Russia, the country of Nicolai the Second and Rasputin; hence they could not have had any experience of constitutional life and of the true liberalism which is only the reverse side of conservatism; it is all the more admirable that they founded a constitutional democracy adorned by an exemplary judiciary.

On Page 16 of the November 17 issue of the Review, Israel is called a racist state. The author does not say what he understands by a “racist state,” nor does he offer any proof for the assertion that Israel is a racist state. Would he by any chance have in mind the fact that in the state of Israel there is no civil marriage, but only Jewish, Christian and Muslim marriages, and therefore that mixed marriages in the non-racist sense of the term are impossible in Israel? I am not so certain that civil marriage is under all circumstances an unmitigated blessing, as to disapprove of this particular feature of the State of Israel.

Finally, I wish to say that the founder of Zionism, Herzl, was fundamentally a conservative man, guided in his Zionism by conservative considerations. (Some years ago, Commentary published an attack from a “Liberal” point of view on Herzl. If my recollection does not deceive me, that article is sufficient to prove the point which I am making.) The moral spine of the Jews was in danger of being broken by the so-called emancipation which in many cases had alienated them from their heritage, and yet not given them anything more than merely formal equality; it had brought about a condition which has been called “external freedom and inner servitude”; political Zionism was the attempt to restore that inner freedom, that simple dignity, of which only people who remember their heritage and are loyal to their fate, are capable. Political Zionism is problematic for obvious reasons. But I can never forget what it achieved as a moral force in an era of complete dissolution. It helped to stem the tide of “progressive” leveling of venerable, ancestral differences; it fulfilled a conservative function.

I felt it was my duty to bring these considerations to your attention. I would appreciate it if you were good enough to reply to this letter.

Sincerely yours,
Leo Strauss

Permission to reproduce this letter was granted by the Estate of Leo Strauss.

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